How to Become a Software Engineer in 2021: A Guide for Those Starting From Scratch

Software engineers are the unsung heroes of the digital sector. It’s thanks to their skills (and, of course, the wonders of modern engineering) that our devices can transcend their plastic and silicon exteriors to become the invaluable tools we use today. 

From afar, the work these coders do can seem daunting, even incomprehensible. But thanks to the expansion of computer science education and training options, it has never been easier to enter the software engineering field — even with little to no prior industry experience. All it takes is a healthy level of ambition, hard work, foresight, and adaptability. 

Becoming a software engineer typically encompasses six key steps: 

  1. Planning your career path
  2. Obtaining an education
  3. Gaining experience
  4. Getting certified
  5. Building your portfolio
  6. Applying for jobs

While the upskilling process requires strong commitment and patience, the career rewards it provides are well worth the effort. Read on to learn how to become a software engineer in 2021!

1. Planning Your Career Path

Though many software engineering (or coding) skills are transferable between roles, aspiring software engineers should have a career trajectory in mind. After all, the term “coding” can encompass a variety of different positions; understanding the distinction between software engineering and related fields such as web programming is crucial during the initial career planning stage.

As the name suggests, software engineering generally refers to the creation and implementation of computer software and utility programs. Software engineers use their comprehensive knowledge of computer science and mathematics to develop software products that suit users’ digital needs. Web developers, on the other hand, focus primarily on coding websites. These professionals are tasked with creating and maintaining everything from layouts and functions to navigation and overall usability. 

Once you have a clear idea of your intended career path, you can start navigating it. With that in mind, now let’s continue our discussion on how to become a software engineer. 

2. Obtaining an Education

Generally speaking, there are three main paths aspiring software engineers can take to pursue their education: coding bootcamps, college, and self-directed learning. The option you choose will be contingent on your preferences as a learner and your lifestyle circumstances (such as schedule conflicts, intended timelines, financial resources, etc.). 

Each route comes with its own set of pros and cons, so consider them carefully before enrolling in an academic course!

Now, let’s assess the educational options which may help you become a software developer from scratch.

Coding bootcamp

By attending a coding bootcamp, you’ll have the opportunity to gain a set of job-ready programming skills through an accelerated curriculum. Software engineering is challenging to learn from scratch — but with a bootcamp, even industry newcomers can build a strong knowledge base and ready themselves for an entry-level role quickly if they are willing to put in the time, hard work, and dedication. 

Coding bootcamps may be worth it for those who don’t have the time or resources to attend a four-year degree program. These courses last just three to six months, depending on whether you opt for a part- or full-time schedule, and are often cheaper than multi-year degree programs. Bootcamps are also highly flexible; many offer virtual, in-person, and weekend options to suit working professionals’ scheduling needs. 

That said, because bootcamps tend to focus on web-based coding rather than software engineering, a coding bootcamp may not be the best choice for someone who wants to land a job in the latter field as soon as they complete their formal education. 

But if you want to develop your coding fundamentals and start gaining work experience as soon as possible, you should still consider enrolling in a coding bootcamp geared toward helping you become a full stack developer. Such a course will provide you with a “full stack” of back end (server-side) and front end (client-side) programming skills. Having this foundation will better equip you to hit the ground running as an entry-level professional and start accumulating real job experience — which you can then use to springboard into software engineering.

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College education

College is far and away the most popular educational route among developers today. In 2020, Stack Overflow found that nearly 75 percent of surveyed developers had achieved at least the equivalent of a bachelor’s degree or higher, remaining consistent with numbers observed in previous years. 

Four-year degree programs are popular for a reason: they cover computer science theory and practice, provide communal learning environments, offer access to supportive instructors, and facilitate networking opportunities. These university degree programs are also usually well-regarded by employers. 

However, a college education can be less economical than a bootcamp, and a degree isn’t strictly necessary to become a software engineer, though you’ll often have to work harder to achieve your goals. The same survey also found that just over 20 percent of professional developers did not have an undergraduate degree. Roughly 16 percent of surveyed developers also described college degrees as “not at all important” or “not necessary.” 

In summary — while college can be a fantastic option for those who have the time and resources to attend, it is not a be-all-end-all academic requirement for everyone wondering how to become a software engineer. 

Self-directed learning

There is also a range of self-directed learning opportunities to explore for those who prefer less formal academic options. For instance, learners can pick up necessary coding skills via free educational websites like Khan Academy and freeCodeCamp. In addition to being cost-effective, these classes are designed to suit self-guided instruction and scheduling, making them highly personalized by default. 

But the flexibilities provided by self-directed learning come at a cost. Those who choose to learn independently don’t have the accountability a set schedule or formal instructor offers; rather they are responsible for keeping themselves on track and productive. While this approach may work well for some, those who are less self-motivated may find themselves falling behind on their upskilling timetable.

3. Gaining Experience

Your skills training shouldn’t start and end with formal classes! Aspiring software engineers will want to accrue hands-on experience through volunteer work, personal projects, internships, and other practical work opportunities. Practicing your coding skills outside of the classroom will allow you to pad out your resume, add items to your professional portfolio, and otherwise improve your standing during the job search.

Not sure where to start? If you’re attending a college program or bootcamp, you may want to reach out to your institution’s alumni affairs office to see if they can connect you with any open internship or placement opportunities. Alternatively, you can check out a few of the resources below for inspiration!

Additional Resources

4. Getting Certified 

Want to maximize your chances of being chosen by employers? You may want to consider earning a certification. Certificates are valuable in today’s professional climate, as they quickly confirm your experience to employers seeking top-level candidates. Being certified may help you rise above other applicants when potential employers sift through resumes. 

Below, we’ve listed a few certifications that might benefit an entry-level software engineer. 

Additional Resources

5. Building Your Portfolio

A coding portfolio is a crucial asset for all aspiring software engineers seeking employment. This comprehensive body of work is often the first impression job recruiters have of you. It is a great way to showcase your past projects, too; these can convey your versatility and general know-how as a work-ready software engineer.  

As an interested candidate, your job is to provide as much evidence of your abilities as possible — so take time to build out your portfolio accordingly! When summarizing projects, be sure to include detailed descriptions of all technologies utilized, roles you served, and any other relevant information about your process and ideology. 

Additional Resources:

6. Applying For Jobs

Once you’ve sought out proper training and certification, dabbled in projects, and prepared a layered portfolio, you’ll be ready to apply for software engineering positions. Start by mapping out your career goals, pinpointing jobs you would prefer based on your experiences to date; this will help you narrow down compatible opportunities early into your application process. Update your resume, LinkedIn profile, and other relevant application materials to ensure that potential employers have an up-to-date snapshot of your skills and capabilities. 

It is essential to remain confident and not limit yourself during this time. The sheer number of different roles can be overwhelming at first, but as you test the waters, keep in mind that your right fit is out there — it just might take some time to find it!

What Exactly Is Software Engineering and What Do Software Engineers Do?

Software engineering broadly refers to the practice of building, maintaining, and improving computer software and networking systems. Software engineers, in turn, have extensive knowledge of coding languages, software development, and engineering principles. 

By applying such principles, software engineers conduct complex analyses to develop customized systems and software products based on their clients’ unique demands. This process is usually preceded by intensive studying of specified system requirements and limitations. 

While software engineer job descriptions will vary across industries and employers, most professionals can expect to share the same core set of responsibilities. These include but are not limited to:

  • Improving systemic operations by conducting system analysis and recommending procedural changes
  • Investigating systemic, network, and product bugs
  • Developing new software solutions that suit current business or consumer needs
  • Documenting solutions for non-technical stakeholders via visualized charts, diagrams, layouts, and other illustrated materials
  • Obtaining and licensing software as needed

As you apply to jobs, remember to tailor your resume and cover letter to the role specifications laid out in the role description! 

How Long Does It Take to Become a Software Engineer? 

The answer depends on you! The time required to become a software engineer will vary based on your desired academic route. For example, a typical college education, such as a degree in computer science, takes around four years to complete and spreads instruction out across seasonal semesters. The pursuit of a degree is a slow but thorough process, and graduation stands as a notable achievement. 

However, if you want to get started with a job in coding sooner and get valuable job experience while you continue to work toward completing the required skill sets of software engineers, you can also consider enrolling in a bootcamp or learning on your own. Most bootcamp courses range from three to six months. During this time, instruction is often quick and intensive, focusing on helping learners build job-ready web development skills as quickly as possible. 

Independent learners face the most uncertainty when it comes to establishing timelines. Generally speaking, motivated learners could teach themselves coding basics within a year or so — however, this span can grow or shrink according to their self-imposed schedule, availability, and aptitude for independent study. 

What Programming Languages Should You Focus on to Become a Software Engineer? 

When you’re just starting out as a software engineer, it can be challenging to figure out which coding languages have the most professional value. Thankfully, you don’t have to cherry pick your skillset alone — we’ve developed a list of the most in-demand coding skills on the market today. 

A chart that shows what skills employers look for in developers across the globe.

JavaScript

JavaScript has been consistently cited as the most commonly used programming language globally — not to mention “the most sought-out language by hiring managers in the Americas” (PDF, 2.8 MB). The enduring relevance of JavaScript makes the language a go-to by default; it remains one of the easiest languages to learn and is used by most major web browsers. 

Python

Python is another common language used primarily for back end development and data science. This general-purpose language is tailored to several different programming styles — such as object-oriented and functional — to aid in a variety of projects. Like JavaScript, Python is known for being relatively easy to learn, but even seasoned software engineers should consider its offerings; over 50 percent of hiring managers (PDF, 2.8 MB) now seek candidates fluent in the language. 

Go 

Google-developed Go has seen a steady increase in popularity since its 2009 inception. According to analysts at HackerRank (PDF, 2.8 MB), it has been “the #1 language developers want to learn next” for three consecutive years; it was also found to be the “12th most known language for 2020.” Given the age of many of its prominent competitors, it is safe to assume Go will only continue to carve a deeper niche in the broad programming spectrum, making it a valuable language for today’s engineers. 

Java

Java is the fifth-most commonly used language among professional developers. As a general-use and object-oriented language, Java is especially valuable for developers creating objects that “encompass functions and data.” The language’s versatility, paired with its consistent demand among all notable languages, keeps its appeal timeless. 

HTML

Despite its potentially intimidating name, “HyperText Markup Language” (HTML) is a highly accessible language often used to describe a web page’s formatting and overall appearance. As a markup language, HTML is more specific in its usability, but remains one of the most commonly used languages worldwide. 

Software Developer Salaries & Job Outlook — In New York & the U.S.

Though pandemic-related impacts continue to be felt within the U.S. economy, recent BLS data predicts continued growth in the software engineering industry from 2019 to 2029; this is comparatively much faster than the average for all other occupations. In May 2019, software developers were found to make an average annual wage of $111,620. However, this figure often varies by location. In New York, for instance, the mean wage was found to be $119,570 — a rate significantly higher than the national average. 

A map that shows state-by-state salary averages for U.S. software developers.

That said, remote work trends have reshaped parts of the software developer employment process, with many candidates narrowing their job search to opportunities that offer remote functionality. In turn, employers have been forced to consolidate and restructure significant aspects of their infrastructure to emphasize remote working. 

This trend has influenced but ultimately not hindered the availability of engineering jobs, though it remains to be seen how the pandemic will impact long-term industry salary figures; for now, they are generally stable following a period of constant growth from 2016–2020. Keep in mind that salary is affected by a number of factors including professional experience, educational background, company size, and knowledge of in-demand skills and technologies.

Should You Apply to a Coding Bootcamp to Become a Software Engineer?

Are coding bootcamps worth it? If you want to build the foundational skills necesssary to start coding professionally within six months, yes! Coding bootcamps offer a valuable educational option for aspiring software engineers who want to upskill quickly and start working toward an entry-level position. 

Not sure where to start? Columbia Engineering Coding Boot Camp stands as an excellent venue for this type of learning, offering an immersive curriculum aimed at building both a solid coding foundation and an array of fundamental skills that can be applied to software engineering. Contact us today to learn more about how we can help support your career growth.

FAQs on Software Engineering

Can You Become a Software Engineer Without a Degree? 

While the value of an undergraduate education is undeniable, a degree is not always necessary to succeed as a software engineer if you are willing to work hard and build up your skills and experience.. There are numerous alternative educational paths for honing your engineering skills and establishing credibility, including bootcamp courses and self-directed learning options. 

Can You Become a Software Engineer If You’re Older?

Absolutely. The desire to learn and grow transcends age; while coding is sometimes viewed as a younger worker’s domain, it is more than possible to learn programming when you’re older. All you need is the right amount of curiosity and determination.  

How Is Software Engineering Different From Web Development?

Software engineering refers to the development of computer systems and their underlying software — as well as the broad application of software engineering principles. Web developers, on the other hand, specialize in the construction of web pages and the consistent maintenance of their back end data and general usability. Learn more about becoming a web developer.  

How Much Can You Make as a Coder?

What kind of salary can you expect as a coder? According to Bureau of Labor Statistics data, coders average $111,620 per year (which breaks down to a mean hourly wage of $53.66). However, it is important to note that income can vary by experience, company size, and location; a job located in a tech hub like New York City or Seattle could earn you dramatically more than a similar role in Florida, for example. Learn more about becoming a coder and what kind of salary you can expect.

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